Reviewing evidence, making history meaningful

Historians write books, publishers send the books out to scholarly journals, journal editors send the books out to other historians, who in turn write book reviews to be published in the


To be reviewed in a scholarly journal or in a newspaper is helpful in getting out the word, boosting book sales and (especially if the review is positive) boosting the reputation of the author. At least, that’s the way it used to be.

Now, in the age of the Internet, a positive post on Facebook or Twitter will no doubt sell more books than any journal review.

Usually, reviews are complimentary, but sometimes, reviewers are critical. It can get especially nasty if someone’s research is called into question, or if a historian’s integrity is held to be suspect.

When my first book was published, the one negative review –­ out of scores of them ­– came from a fellow Kentucky historian I thought was my friend.

Historians can be vicious to other historians. That’s what happened to the eminent Harvard historian Samuel Eliot Morison, the biographer of Christopher Columbus.

I remember that my mother had secretly called Gladys Bryant, one of my history professors at Belmont University, to ask for advice on a good book of history to buy as a Christmas present for her history major son.

Bryant, surely caught off guard by my mother’s phone call, had suggested Morison’s “The European Discovery of America.”

I have that Christmas present book on my shelves and through it I came to admire Morison’s work.

In one of Morison’s books on Columbus, however, the historian got himself in a pickle with a reviewer when he made what he must have thought was an innocuous statement about one of the discoverer’s voyages.

Morison simply stated that on one particular day in 1492, the captain (Columbus) had “staggered to the deck of the ship.”

The conscientious book reviewer questioned the statement.

After all, he said, how could Morison, who surely wasn’t there in 1492 to witness the event, know that Columbus on that day had staggered to the deck of the ship.

Morison responded that in his research he had consulted the ship’s log, and on that particular day, the captain (again Columbus) had been ill.

Furthermore, the captain noted that on that day there was a storm at sea.

With that evidence, the historian had reasoned that with a storm at sea, an ill and weakened captain would not have walked to the deck of the ship; he would have


That explanation did not satisfy the critical reviewer. How could the historian know for sure, based on the evidence? What, after all, did the evidence reveal?

Morison made one more stab at an explanation. He said that he himself had sailed on a scale replica of the Santa Maria.

He assured the reviewer that based on his own experience, a sick captain, in a storm at sea, would have staggered to the deck of the ship. He knew from his own experience!

Well, now! What do you think? Samuel Eliot Morison, this renowned historian, had certainly developed an empathy for his historical subject through his research.

We often encourage our students to empathize with those long dead individuals in their history textbooks.

What must it have been like to live as they lived, to think as they thought, and to act as they acted?

“Put yourselves in their shoes or moccasins,” we tell students in our history classes. “What was it like to have lived back in those long ago days.”

But what role does empathy play in historical research and writing?

Perhaps this is another example of history as an art, rather than an exact science.